The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
President Donald Trump’s approach to foreign policy is the same as his approach to domestic policy: that of a wrecking ball. He prefers to denigrate U.S. friends and allies rather than work with them. He prefers the company and support of autocrats and kleptocrats, who degrade democracy and the rule of law. He couldn’t care less about the environment or about the spread of nuclear weapons—at various times he has even encouraged the latter. And he opposes anything President Barack Obama ever supported, except isolationism and governing by executive order (which, by the way, is not the way the U.S. Constitution is supposed to work).
Recent revelations are even worse. Trump’s suspension of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine, followed within days by his personal insistence that the Ukrainian president dig up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, is the quintessential basis upon which Congress should remove a president from office: foreign interference in U.S. affairs and corruption of the presidential office for personal gain were the two types of conduct the framers most dreaded. If Republican members of the U.S. Senate join in lockstep to prevent Trump’s removal, they will cease to exist as a major factor in national politics after November 2020.
I am running against Trump for the Republican nomination for president in part to return the United States to the stable, bipartisan foreign policy that brought the United States through the Cold War. This means restoring deep connections with our European and Asian allies and with Israel. It means building on the changes that brought Middle Eastern countries into alignment against religious extremism and terrorism. It means supporting African countries in their battles against terrorists and their efforts to build effective, independent democracies. And it means recognizing that issues such as the environment and the future of our planet demand multilateral cooperation.
Why do we need a foreign policy? The United States is an immensely rich and powerful country. Its neighbors are friendly allies or fish. And it has—or had, until this president took office—good relations with all countries not bent on upsetting the international order. Yet the United States cannot afford to retreat into isolationism, as the Trump administration has done. Doing so not only betrays the United States’ foundational principles and ideals; it leaves the country exposed to a range of growing security threats, from nuclear proliferation to terrorism to rising powers that threaten U.S. allies and the U.S.-led international order.
These are not halcyon days. Russia appears determined to redraw its borders to match those of the former Soviet Union—using military force if necessary. China claims the South China Sea as its exclusive territory. Both Russia and China dictate to their neighbors and seek veto power over other nations’ decisions about security, diplomacy, and trade. Iran and other militant anti-Semites in the Middle East believe that Israel should not exist, even though it has the same rights as every other country. And North Korea tests missiles and nuclear warheads.
But how should the United States deal with these threats? A full-blown neoconservative approach—using force and spending blood and treasure wherever something has displeased us—dissipates and often wastes U.S. power. Our Constitution and our wallets would be better off if we did not have to use force anywhere. Still, we must keep that option in our back pocket.
The United States cannot afford to retreat into isolationism, as the Trump administration has done.
The United States is the guarantor of a world order that, since World War II, has been safer, more prosperous, and more open and inclusive than ever before. We have spent too much blood and treasure building that order to turn the historical page backward, as the uninformed and incurious Trump clearly intends to do. For that reason, we must carefully conserve our strength, using force only where it is necessary.
The United States must also align its goals with its resources. There are many claims on the U.S. budget, and the military is only one. Balance is required, as President Dwight Eisenhower advised at the end of his tenure, to avoid a bloated and unaccountable military-industrial complex. In recent years, necessary but incomplete investment in defense has not been matched by equally important investments in diplomacy, intelligence, and cybersecurity. We must have the full range of policy capabilities so that, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis memorably put it, the military doesn’t need to “buy more ammunition.”
We must preserve the military strength we need to protect ourselves and reassure our allies while also living within the confines of budgetary reality. We must update our forces to deal with our adversaries’ improved air, sea, and armored capabilities. But we must do so with the money we have, not the money we wish we had. This is a challenge, but we fought the Cold War on a budget, and we can deal with today’s threat environment on a budget as well.
The nearest-term existential threat we face today involves nuclear weapons, whether in the hands of a state or a non-state actor. Every U.S. administration since the Cold War has been determined to prevent North Korea and Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. As president, I would be no less determined. If North Korea and Iran obtain or build nuclear weapons, then it will be the fault of the United States and its partners. But we cannot wish the problem away by bullying or bluster—Trump’s modus operandi. Serious challenges require serious political and diplomatic preparation.
Trump’s abrogation of the 2015 nuclear deal among the United States, its European allies, and Iran was a colossal blunder. Did he really think Iran would contemplate a new agreement after what he did? Under that agreement, Iran was blocked for ten years from taking the most important steps to develop nuclear weapons, and it appeared to be in compliance. It is one thing to be skeptical of Iran’s intentions. It is quite another to disincentivize Iran to comply with a deal that kept it from obtaining nuclear weapons. But Trump didn’t care. And it appears that new U.S. sanctions have only provoked Iranian attacks on ships in the Persian Gulf and on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. This escalating crisis is substantially of Trump’s making.
Solving the Iran problem will require a new diplomatic strategy that does not undermine our credibility—as Trump’s decision to tear up the deal did—or appear desperate for a new deal. We cannot ignore Iran’s latest acts of aggression against Saudi Arabia and others, even if Saudi Arabia poses its own set of problems for us with its support for Sunni extremists. But if a new deal can be negotiated—perhaps after we make clear to Iran that naked aggression is a nonstarter—it should be. This is a situation that calls for finesse and attention to events, not ham-fisted actions driven by delusions.
Where North Korea is concerned, the United States should be very skeptical, not engage in a reality TV bromance with its murderous leader, as Trump has done. We need a flexible approach that looks for an opening for a real solution, if possible involving the South Korea and China. But we should never take North Korea at its word or embarrass ourselves by endorsing its behavior while receiving nothing in exchange.
Under Trump, our allies and friends have lost confidence that the United States will fulfill its alliance commitments and other promises.
I am not surprised by Trump’s inclination to handle diplomatic negotiations himself, though these have been marked by childish behavior and irresponsibility. I do think it would be reasonable for the president to undertake direct talks with the leaders of Russia and China. But a U.S. president must be well briefed and well prepared. Trump brags that he prefers to take only his own advice. This is a major problem, since he has had no preparation in life for diplomacy and is not known for being a reader, to put it mildly.
The nuclear threat extends beyond Iran and North Korea. Various non-state actors, including al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the affiliates of both groups, harbor ambitions of acquiring nuclear weapons. In order to prevent that from happening, the United States must remain committed to nonproliferation. Countries like Japan and South Korea rely on U.S. protection in exchange for not developing nuclear arsenals of their own. The United States cannot withdraw from the world to the point that these allies have no choice but to build their own nuclear arsenals—or seek protection from another nuclear power that wishes us and them harm.
The best way to prevent a cascade of nuclear proliferation is to reassure our allies that we have their backs. Under Trump, our allies and friends have lost confidence that the United States will fulfill its alliance commitments and other promises. We cannot restore such confidence overnight, but doing so will be one of my highest priorities. Friend and foe alike must recognize that the United States will not shirk its responsibilities, continue on Trump’s isolationist path, or follow his breezy suggestions that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons. The president is maddeningly unclear on fundamental concepts such as nuclear nonproliferation. Proliferation must be a taboo, nothing less.
Great powers like China and Russia pose another challenge to the world order we have championed for the past century. Since the United States entered World War II, Republican and Democratic administrations alike have—until Trump arrived on the scene—fought for a world that was less fractious, less nationalistic, and less xenophobic than the world that brought us the two world wars. Since 1945, U.S. presidents have consistently supported multilateral institutions, built alliances, and deepened friendships around the world, adding to our security and prosperity in incalculable ways. We need to defend the free world we helped create long ago.
There is no need for there to be enmity between the United States and China or Russia. Chinese President Xi Jinping was right when he told Trump that we have a thousand reasons to be friends. But intimidation of U.S. allies must be met with a determined diplomatic response—one that makes clear that our word is our bond. China’s recent thuggishness in Hong Kong represents a broken promise: this is not what Beijing said “one country, two systems” would mean, and it bodes ominously for Chinese intentions elsewhere. We need to have talks with China about this subject, which concerns the world and world peace.
It is madness for a U.S. president to send troops to any country where she or he observes aggressive behavior.
The United States must also push China to level the trading field, and to contribute to international law and order. China’s contribution to the United Nations and to other international bodies must be commensurate with its wealth. These subjects must be taken up by U.S. diplomats with the utmost seriousness. Tariffs and trade wars are not the answer for anyone.
While the United States must defend the open international order, it must also recall that not every international problem involves a vital U.S. interest. It is madness for a U.S. president to send troops to any country where she or he observes aggressive behavior. Trump’s recent rushed and impulsive announcement that he was going to send 5,000 more U.S. troops to the Middle East, though short lived, was a case in point. Another example—and I say this with a heavy heart—is the current number of troops deployed to Afghanistan, where they are sitting duck nation-builders. We cannot trust the Taliban to honor a deal, and inviting them to see the inside of Camp David days before 9/11 was repellent. We must set our own timetable and withdraw from Afghanistan while looking after those Afghans who have helped us there.
There are other pressing issues that demand our attention as well. We need to take cybersecurity and infrastructure security seriously. There is no question that the United States has come under sustained cyberattack in recent years. We must bring the U.S. cyber landscape to state-of-the-art quality. We need to protect the soft targets within our economy from being hit. And we need to harden our vulnerable electrical grid.
We also need to take counterintelligence seriously. Russia is interfering in our elections, and China aims to own the world’s communications infrastructure. We cannot allow these competitors to wage a gray-zone conflict against us through infiltration and sabotage. Americans have constitutional rights, but Russian and Chinese intelligence agents, not to mention hacking syndicates, do not observe them. We need to disrupt the operations of these actors in any way we can within the limits of our free society.
Beyond security, we need to affirm some basic principles, some now honored in the breach. We need to recognize that offloading our fiscal responsibilities onto foreign creditors through trillion-dollar deficits erodes our sovereignty. Our leaders seem to think that because they can’t get a grip on the budget, imbalance doesn’t matter at all. It does, and we know it. As a governor, I balanced budgets with bipartisan support. There is no excuse for Washington’s failure to live within its means. Every normal organization and person and family has to do so. Fiscal responsibility used to be the calling card of the Republican Party. Not today.
Since World II, Republicans have supported free trade. President Ronald Reagan wanted hemispheric free trade because he remembered the doleful impact of the protectionist Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930. Every governor knows that international trade helps her or his state. It results in better-paying jobs, lower prices for hard-working consumers, and increased prosperity. Trump mistakenly believes that every relationship and negotiation is a zero-sum game, and as a result he must constantly resort to threats and bullying and never behave reasonably. He does not have even a child’s understanding of the world around us. Even his understanding of the morals of the marketplace is Mafia-esque: starting a trade war is not the way to make trade policy in a complex and interdependent world.
Republicans have also been environmentalists since Lincoln founded the party. Conserving the environment is part of our DNA. In this as in so many other respects, Trump is a RINO (Republican In Name Only). The United States and the world face real choices about climate. Halting climate degradation is not a task for one country alone. I would rejoin the Paris Agreement and work with China and others to avoid causing the Arctic ice cap to melt, which would be a world catastrophe. Science, not polemics, must guide us here.
To govern is to choose, and that means choosing the right priorities, the right policies, and the right approaches. We live in a challenging and often dangerous world, and we need a grown-up in the office that Trump now occupies. I would be ready on day one.